Series: Research from Others

Fraction Tasks Easier with Strong Visual Conceptualization

Suggested to be a common starting point for math anxiety, and shown to cause confusion even among teachers, fractions are a notoriously tricky topic in early math education. A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison seeks to understand why some people have a harder time with fractions than others.

To try to gauge the qualities that contribute to a strong understanding of fractions, lead researcher Percival Matthews showed a sample of college undergraduates pairs of dots or lines for 1.5 seconds and then asked them to estimate a ratio between the two sets. Then they were tested on their general understanding of fractions through various written tasks. In addition, the researchers analyzed scores from an algebra placement test the students previously took.

Those students with the greatest ability to visually estimate the ratio between the dots and lines tended to have a stronger showing on the written fraction tasks. Surprisingly, they also tended to have higher scores on the algebra test, which did not directly deal with fractions or visual conceptualization.

Matthews and his team hope that further study can help to explain how the seemingly innate ability of some individuals to grasp proportion and ratio might lead to more successful teaching and learning of this difficult topic in the future.

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